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Assuming #1, my explanation is handicapping. Austrian economics being a disfavored field, an Austrian candidate will only be hired if they are extra good.

Could you be more specific about the exact claim you are "willing to bet" on?

Maybe not being in the mainstream prompts Austrian economists to be more motivated to convey the important lessons of Austrian economics to the students. Just a hypothesis.

Mike: just that it's not just that Austrians are really good teachers compared to other economists, but that they are really good teachers compared to college professors in general.

Austrian teachers start with some advantages, you are teaching theories that make more sense the more you learn, they relate to everyday experience as well as national econonomic policy, they do not call for huge counter-factual assumptions or sophisticated maths.

There is also the psychological factor of being a heroic and defiant group, a saving remnant, like the Christians in the catacombs of Rome, at risk of being fed to the lions but dedicated to saving western civilisation from the barbarian hordes of Marxists, Keynesians, general equilibrium theorists and econometric model builders. That must make you feel really motivated each time you step up in front of a class!

I'm willing to bet that it has to do with having a minority opinion. There are so many Keynesians who generally agree with each other, they don't really have to think about their arguments. They can just speak in sound bites and everyone nods their heads in agreement. They are merely reiterating a received wisdom. But if you are making a case for anything that people aren't already sold on, your arguments must be well formulated. You can't rely on a group of bobble heads to give a poor argument a pass. You run into this a lot when talking to lefties in general. They are usually isolated from conflicting ideas. They know what they are supposed to believe and they don't need a lot of explanation about it. They will readily agree with anything that sounds pretty close to the received wisdom, and never challenge it. If they ever happen to find themselves out of their element and are presented with a (gasp) different idea, they honestly don't know what to do. They have never been challenged before. They are at first shocked, then defensive.

Teaching standard economics must be a lot like paint by numbers. No need to be creative, it's not like anyone is actually going to thing about it too hard.

In my experience my lectures are much clearer than those of 90% of living economists.

I'm not the least bit surprised that a tradition that emphasizes narrative, logic, and hermeneutics should turn out people who can communicate well and who are therefore good teachers. Complex topics always make more sense when you are using a complex form of communication to teach them -- rather than trying to teach complex concepts using simple methods such as math.

"Do others think that the claim that Austrians are typically excellent teachers is a correct observation?"

On my own sample of 9 Austrian minded professors I would rate 5 as good, 2 as average, and 2 as non-gifted at teaching.

On a sample of 9 non-Austrian minded professors, I would rate 2 as good, 4 as average, and 3 as non-gifted at teaching.

However my observations are very biased because I've had an interest in Austrian economics since my freshman year.

There's a strong culture of vulgarization in Austrian economics. If vulgarization is understood as some sort of "teaching the layman", I suppose it is one source of the comparative advantage. I'm not so sure comes from being the "minority opinion". I don't believe it is a feature of all "alternative" schools of thoughts to have great teachers.

Also, Austrians typically spend somewhat less time on the math and more on analysis, whereas some non-Austrian professors put a lot of effort on thoroughly explaining the technicalities of the models and leave analysis almost entirely for the readings and/or for the instructors to cover during tutoring. In my opinion this is a terrible method I have yet to see an Austrian use.

@Mario: "I don't know how Nixon won - everyone I know voted for McGovern." Perhaps, Mario, that is some availability bias too. :)

I think Troy Camplin has it right: it's methodology. The Austrian method consists of 1) the logic of simple apriori reasoning, 2) the empirics of simple historical understanding. The method of instruction follows the method of understanding and research. So Austrians get to teach with nice historical examples and ideal types that are very effective, especially when already embedded in students' frame of reference, vs. mathematical methods that are not the students' "natural language" (and, I might add, are too unrealistic/ implausible to be comfortable with).

I view this whole phenomenon in terms of a Star Wars metaphor: C3P0 was a much better communicator than R2D2 because 3P0 was a gifted storyteller (remember when he taught the Ewoks about the rebellion against the empire, complete with hand-waving and sound effects). R2D2 of course can "compute" much better, but the people don't speak that language, so he fails at communication.

Interesting - I wasn't under the impression this was some sort of common understanding. Is this really true? I can't think of why this would be true. I haven't noticed any correlation between the quality of the instruction I've received and the beliefs of my professors... I don't know if I've ever had anyone that would call themselves an Austrian, but I've seen enough variety to conclude there isn't much of a relationship in what I do have experience with.

In my readings and observations, I think Austrians tend to understand the various sides of economic arguments better than others. And the reason for this seems to be that Austrians had to learn everything that non-austrians learned while further enriching their own views with the Austrian analytical view. The opposite is not usually true for non-Austrians.

This doesn't directly answer Steve's question but I think it plays a role in what he's getting at.

I believe Daniel Kuehn makes a valid point: Who's to say that Austrians make better teachers? I know plenty of outstanding teachers from Harvard, Chicago, UCLA, and elsewhere.

With that said, I believe it's a combination of two things, one as noted by Camplin. Law professors tend to make great teachers because they're taught to argue logically and analytically. These are traits of great teachers. But many different schools of economic thought fall under that category.

So one more: Austrians are more contextual - they explain a story. Too many neoclassical economists are strict theorists concerned with methodology and little understanding of, and concern for, the context in which these theories apply. How meaningful and understandable is even something so relatively easy to teach as supply and demand without first a good understanding of the complex nature of social order that markets help solve? Austrians do a relatively better job of explaining the larger social problem, largely because they believe (rightfully so) that it's what economics is all about. Without the context, theories are like trying to discern the picture from a jigsaw puzzle when much of the puzzle (i.e., the pieces) is missing.

Prof Horwitz,

I have seen a lot of pretty good reasoning on (2) given (1), but other than the data provided by Prof Rizzo (;-), I do not see the evidence for (1). What would you consider good evidence for or against (1)?

Also: you had mentioned some fantastic 'fan' mail you got from a previous... op-ed? Is a "best of" the misunderstandings in the works?

Hypothesis 1 is incorrect. When I was an undergraduate at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg the Austrian school economists were generally considered to be poor teachers. Many of them were poor colleagues too.

There were Austrian economists in Johannesburg?

Your colleagues were undergraduates, therefore, not Austrian economists. To be an Austrian economist requires a PHD.

The reason why Austrian economists are better teachers in average is their passion for economics. Only people really interested in understanding economics will self identify with a school of economic though. Today thousands of people obtain PHD's in economics, but only a very small fraction really understands and take seriously the science, Austrians tend to take economics seriously enough to specialize in a school of thought that is mainstream, therefore, doesn't bring any professional recognition, but they do because they think it is the truth.

"is mainstream" should be "isn't mainstream"


Is there not likely to be a self-selection process deeper than Austrian teaching ability alone?

For example, would it be relatively likely or unlikely for high school graduates with 800 math SAT scores to take up Austrian economics as compared with mainstream economics or science or engineering?

Regards, Don

You're implying that Austrian economists might have chosen their field because they're worse in math than regular economists? I think that's a bit of a myth. I might be true that AE raises interest among those who are not good in math at the undergrad and amateurish level, but you don't get far in PhD programs if you're incompetent in math...

Rafael - perhaps I wasn't clear. I was a student and the Austrian school academics doing the teaching were not highly regarded as teachers. How else would I know that they were poor teachers?

Later when I was a faculty member they were not good colleagues.


@Mathieu

Not really, more a case of the those with the highest measured math aptitudes being more likely to choose a more math intensive path. I doubt that anything like a majority of PhD students in general have a 800 math SAT score.

Regards, Don

That is a good question -- If you take the Math scores for people who COMPLETE their PhD, in all areas of campus, what is the average GRE math score? If Austrians as a group have a average 780 < 800 (we assume all top 25 schools in the mainstream have near 800 average) then Austrians are doing something which is more like what the rest of campus is doing.

One large university in the south where I sent my scores -- automatically accepted me with funding for having a combined GRE over 1200. They graduate plenty of decent economists too.

Many have made the argument that GRE scores in verbal should be higher among Austrians. I would find this relevant if we are willing to think of Austrians as interdisciplinary social scientists who happen to hold an affinity for having the word "economics" on their diploma and paycheck.

I am glad people are bringing up international experience. I wonder if Horwitz meant to focus on domestic experience.

I was indeed thinking North American Austrians. This discussion has been helpful, I should note.


It occurs to me that the SAT scores MAY have been rescaled without my knowledge, so don't take my numbers as relevant for current tests, if so. The historical SAT scores were Verbal and Math maximums of 800, of course.

Regards, Don

Mark wrote:

I believe Daniel Kuehn makes a valid point: Who's to say that Austrians make better teachers?

How can that be possible, when Daniel admits he has never had an Austrian teacher? I mean, if someone said, "I think chocolate tastes better than vanilla, what do you think?" would it make sense for me to say, "I really doubt that, because in my opinion vanilla is no different from strawberry. But I'll give your question some more thought once I go try chocolate some day." ?

It's clearly no longer the Austrian school - it should now be called the Lake Woebegone school.

Seeking to not dip into the snarkiness of Bob Murphy, let me gently respond to his comment.

I read Kuehn's comment to be that there is no evidence presented that proves Austrians make better teachers. I agree. Using Bob's analogy, Steve seems to be saying, "I have an ice cream shop that sells Pet brand ice cream. Man, I see a lot of people eating my ice cream; people must like Pet brand the best." (BTW - Steve acknowledges his own observational bias.) Kuehn's challenge is valid.

One other commentator argued to the effect that Austrians present more logical and logically consistent arguments. I then stated, although this may be true, I've observed many economists of various persuasions do the same.

So lastly, where I do strongly believe Austrians have a big impact in teaching economics is that they teach it in context of overcoming social problems, largely information and incentive problems.

Sorry if that confused you Bob.

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